It was the first time that I had walked into the doors and sat near the back for the duration of the worship service. Being a pastor, I am typically at the front. I usually have tasks to do, responsibilities to which to attend. But today was different. I was not there as their pastor, I was a member of the congregation. I had no particular responsibilities. Nothing to read. Nothing to preach. Nothing to say. I could pray with my own words, not words for the congregation. I could sing without having to think about what is next. I could listen to the sermon instead of delivering it.
“Closing worship service” was written on the front of the bulletin, which was white today, although it is usually ivory colored paper. The images which are usually black and white prints of woodcuts now bears a color image of the church building.
I came in after the service had already started, and I simply pulled myself into a pew in the back, not wishing to make a scene. How would the people reäct to my presence, I wondered to myself. After all, it had only been a month since I delivered my farewell sermon.
My pastorate had been brief and unremarkable. Not quite three years and I was not able to help the ministry to turn a corner. The ministry had always been financially insecure and struggled with growing indigenous leadership. I knew what the problems were, and right after arriving I got to work to try to address them. Yet not quite three years later, here we were, holding the final worship service.
I listened to the eighty year old pipe organ, and looked at the cathedral ceiling. It was hard enough a month ago when I left, I thought to myself, and now I have to say goodbye all over again. But this time it wasn’t just goodbye, it was to close the casket and drop it in the ground. After today, the organ would be silent, and the Word will be heard from one less pulpit, and the faithful cannot gather around that same table any longer.
The minister of the classis leading the service spoke of the ministry’s history and all of the people who worked tirelessly throughout its history. The time came to acknowledge the previous ministers and although I was praying desperately to allow me to sit, the words, “Will Matthew please stand” echoed throughout the sanctuary and I stood up, not wanting the members to see me, for fear of how they may respond to my presence.
There were hugs and tears and understandable anger, as the congregation had only received one week notice of the upcoming closure of their church.
I understand that churches are born and churches die but the church of Christ will remain forever. I understand that God was there before Iglesia Trinidad and that God will be there after. I know that, although the church is closing its doors, God will continue to work in the hearts and lives of the members and adherents and that God will continue to work in that neighborhood. Despite all of this, though, I cannot help but think that God sheds a tear over every church that closes its doors.
Casting blame is an easy thing to do, and is done too often. So is shrugging off one’s role in the event. On the one hand, we all bear responsibility for its death, and on the other hand, none of us truly do. It is a hard place to be.
Humans and plants and animals all have a lifespan, some longer than others, but nothing that we can see, taste, or touch is immortal. Churches are no different. Some churches last longer than others, but no church is eternal, except of course, for The Church, that is, God’s people across space and time. Fortunately, The Church is not dependent upon the existence of a little ministry on the near south side of Milwaukee.